Appleton Autumn!

One of the few disadvantages of working outside, especially at this time of year, is  finding yourself at the bottom of the food chain to hosts of biting insects.  With this warm weather mosquitoes, midges, horseflies and other flying, biting mini-beasts are present in their droves with nothing better to do than seek out their next human meal.Modern commercial insect repellents contain DEET, which although effective is a particularly nasty chemical both to us, the environment and any plastics it come into contact with,  many others contain citronella which has mixed effectiveness. The one proprietary insect repellent used by most of our instructors which is highly effective and made from natural ingredients is Wilma’s Nordic Summer.


The exact recipe is secret but it certainly contains pine oil, and seems to be similar to an old pioneer recipe  which was first published in 1880 in an American publication called “Forest and Stream”, and according to the author “Nessmuk” in his book Woodcraft & Camping has “never been known to fail”!  It is made up of 3 parts pine tar, 2 parts castor oil and 1 part pennyroyal oil.  Another similar recipe uses lavender oil and peppermint oil instead of the pennyroyal oil, and there are not too dissimilar recipes listed in “Wildwood Wisdom” by Elsworth Jaeger. Pine tar is made by dry distillation of the wood of species of pine (normally Scot’s Pine Pinus slyvestris) and has been used for a variety of things including;- the manufacture of soap, medications such as expectorants, antiseptics,  disinfectants, and preserving wood and ropes etc.

Scot's Pine
Scot’s Pine

It is made  by simple packing a large tin that has a hole or holes in the bottom with small pieces of the wood (roots were often used). A smaller tin with no lid is placed in a hole in the ground and the large tin of the wood is placed on top ensuring that the hole is directly over the lower tin. Earth is packed around to prevent gases escaping and then a fire is built on and around the tin of wood.  As the wood heats up the volatile pine oil evaporates off and condenses inside the tin where it runs down through the hole into the tin below.  For an average sized biscuit tin full of wood it normally takes around 90 minutes with a good blaze to extract all the oil from the wood.


Birch tar is produced in exactly the same way but by using strips of birch bark stacked vertically into the tin, and this too has been used historically as an insect repellent in the same way as pine tar.  The tar from the birch is quite liquid when just collected but can be thickened by heating to a thick tar which will set solid on cooling. In addition there are several plants that grow wild in the UK or are frequently cultivated that are documented as having insect repelling properties such as lavender Lavandula sp, tansy Tanacetum vulgare , pineapple weed Matricaria discoidea, mints Mentha sp, lemon balm Melissa officinalis, eucalyptus Eucalyptus sp etc. So with all this in mind we decided to have a go at making our own insect repellent using natural ingredients, as we made it in our Oxfordshire woods we decided to call it “Appleton Autumn”.  If you fancy having a go here’s how we did it.

Take approximately a handful each of;-

  • dried lavender flowers
  • dried pineapple weed
  • dried tansy leaves
  • dried mint
  • dried lemon balm


  1. Crumble or chop finely into a metal pan and add enough rapeseed oil to just cover the dried plants.
  2. infusing
  3. Warm gently but do no cook then take off the heat and allow to infuse for several hours or over night. We found after infusing we could only really detect the smell of the lavender and the tansy.
  4. Strain through a sieve lined with a cloth and squeeze out as much of the infused oil as possible.
  5. For every 100ml of infused oil we added about 50ml of pine tar and 30ml of birch tar (still quite runny)
  6. Add about 50g of grated beeswax to the mixed oils and heat gently until the beeswax has dissolved. Take a small amount and place onto a cool surface and check to see if it sets firm enough, add more beeswax is necessary.
  7. Tip in to jars and put it to the test.


The resultant salve we found was very similar smell wise to Nordic Summer but there is a subtle difference. It certainly looks and feels the same when applied and early tests seem to indicated it works.

Let us know if it works.

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